BACKSTAGE PASS: FIVE TIPS FOR BECOMING A PRO MUSIC JOURNALIST
So you’ve decided you want to be a professional music journalist! First of all: congratulations! You are about to have one of the silliest jobs on earth! Second: massive high five on following your heart, rather than your bank account.
Here are five essential tips for becoming a professional music journalist:
Know your subject: For people not involved in the music industry, there’s a pervasive idea that the world of rock ‘n’ roll is inhabited entirely by untouchably cool people. I hate to break it to you, but this is a massive lie. Guns N’ Roses legend, Slash, once told me that he only really became a great guitarist after his family moved to a new place and he had no friends. To occupy his time, he sat in his room and practiced and practiced until he turned into the riff master we know and love today.
Slash’s story is true of almost everyone in the music industry: you don’t get good enough to work here unless you’ve spent a lot of time nerding out in your bedroom about things no one else cares about: whether it be lyrical themes threaded throughout an album, figuring out who your favorite producer is, or cataloging your all time Top 5 singles.
As a music journalist, it is essential that you know at least as much as–preferably more than–the nerds who are going to read your stuff. Because if you get it wrong–particularly online–you will be ripped apart and hung out to dry.
If you’re in your teens, explore any and all genres of music you can find, and figure out where your passions truly lie. It’s essential you have a solid general knowledge of, well, everything, but if you have a specialty area, editors will be able to utilize you more.
By way of example, my first job after I graduated from college was for Kerrang! magazine in London, which was, at the time, the biggest selling music weekly in the U.K. Traditionally, Kerrang! was a publication focused on heavy metal, but I decided to be honest in the two interviews that secured my position as a junior writer there and told them that my passion and knowledge really lay with punk, hardcore and emo, rather than the key rock acts of the time: Slipknot, Korn and Marilyn Manson. I got lucky: they didn’t particularly need another metal head on staff–but they desperately needed a token emo kid.
Today, having been a professional music journalist for 15 years, I still scour every major music news website, every single week, to keep me in the loop. This both keeps me informed, and helps me come up with story ideas and opinion pieces to pitch to my editors.
Be tenacious: When you are working as a writer–any kind of writer–you absolutely, positively, one hundred per cent must never take any rejection personally. If you send pitches to a magazine and you get ignored or turned down, don’t assume it’s because you’re no good–just send those pitches to someone else and keep sending them out until someone shows interest. It’s tough, and it can be particularly exhausting at the beginning of your career, but getting a bruised ego is just going to slow you down. Do not give up. Just keep going. Your tenacity will pay off in the end.
Equally as important: when you do secure a position at a magazine, if you write what you think is a perfect story and it comes back covered in notes and things your editor wants changed, do it and do it with a smile. I learned more about writing in six months of notes given to me by my first features editor, than I did in four years of University. Your editors are there to help, not hinder you, so listen to them.
Stay calm: When you start working as a music journalist, there are many perks: free shows, backstage passes and, best of all, access to artists. The single greatest thing about being a music journalist is sitting in rooms with bands and picking their brains. All those things you’ve always wondered about your favorite records? Well, now you get to ask the people that made them all about how and why they did. Sometimes, you’ll join them in the studio and listen to new material before anyone else on earth has heard it. It’s awesome, and it’s a privilege–don’t screw it up by getting nervous, fawning all over them, trying to become their new best friend, or choking mid-interview. Go into all interviews armed with questions, a sunny and polite demeanor and a professional attitude. Sometimes, you’ll have fun with the artists and hang out all night; other times, you are just one in a line of journalists they have to tick off their press schedule that day. Go in knowing the band’s history, figure out the mood in the room at the start of the interview and adjust accordingly. Bands are wary of journalists, so we all have our own methods of putting them at ease. Figure out what yours is as soon as you can.
Get experience anywhere and everywhere you can: The first article I ever had published in a newspaper was about new fines for dog owners who let their pets shit in the street. Prestigious, huh? Well, it was to me because at the time, I was 14 years old, I was doing my first week-long work experience placement during summer break, and it was a first step.
If someone wants to help you get words in print, take the opportunity, regardless of what you’re writing about. It’s good practice and your future employers aren’t particularly interested in your degree, unless you have a portfolio of work that demonstrates what you can do, and how willing you are to work hard. Unless you are Tavi Gevinson, your blog is not going to cut it. Work for the school paper, work for the college paper, and every spring and summer break you get, try and get a work placement or internship at any magazine, newspaper, or website that will have you. You’d be surprised at how willing publications are to open their doors to young people. There are often long waiting lists to get in, but it’s worth being patient: if you demonstrate solid writing ability and musical knowledge while you are there, it can lead to real-life writing work in the future. My second story for the dog poop paper was an interview with a pro-skateboarder I admired. It gets better!
Take no shit: Not every interview you do is going to be conducted by funny, interesting, articulate, warm people. So be prepared for the occasional awkward encounter and don’t feel like you have to sugar coat it when you have bad experiences with uncooperative bands. If they give you monosyllabic answers and are rude to you, write about it. If they talk shit and do not follow it up with “That’s off the record”, write about it. If they are conceited and talking down to you, write about it. Aside from anything else, if that’s all they’re giving you, you have no choice. More than that, you are a reporter: it is your job to report what happened when you met these people and keeping things honest is always the most interesting route. As Lester Bangs advises in Almost Famous: be honest and unmerciful.
In addition, if you are a woman, you will deal with an astounding level of sexism in your job and you just have to rise above it. Do not get beaten down every time you go on a story with a male photographer, and the tour manager spends all day giving him instructions and interview times and pretending you’re not there. Do not be discouraged when tour managers request that you don’t travel with the band because “no girls” are allowed on the bus. Stand up for yourself every time a security guard at a venue looks at you like you’re a groupie: maintain your composure and explain why you’re actually there. And the biggest lesson of all: when trolls hit your articles and make personal comments (and threats) based on your gender and appearance, remember the internet is a bitter place, full of angry people and leave it at that. Or, if you’re in a snarky mood, fight back with sarcasm and humor. They don’t expect you to be in the Comments section, so it’s fun to watch them panic and back down.
Good luck out there!
Author Bio: Rae Alexandra is a Welsh woman living in Brooklyn with a tiny ewok dog. She currently contributes to SF Weekly and TeamRock.com, while putting the finishing touches to her first novel, Repenthouse. She has previously written for The Village Voice, JustinTimberlake.com, Kerrang!, Rock Sound, NME, Revolver and a multitude of other, non-music-related, websites. She keeps a blog of the insane/ terrible/ hilarious things her friends say at dickssaythefunniestthings.com, and rants on Twitter about sexism under @duhfeminism, and pop culture under @raemondjjjj. She believes any and all problem can be solved using the question: “What would Kathleen Hanna do?”